Academic Ability ≠ College Success


By Melissa Deuter, MD


Recent reports place the US college drop out rate at around 46 percent. That’s not a typo—46 percent. That means students who enter (and pay for) college in the US successfully complete a degree only 54 percent of the time, a little over half. Experts in educational policy point to the high cost of college, or to academic readiness as the cause for soaring drop-out rates, but as a psychiatrist who specializes in treating college-aged patients, I’m not so sure. When a student is in a crisis of college failure, I am often one of the first numbers the parents dial.

My phone starts ringing two weeks after final exams, when grades arrive in the mail. The messages are from parents of kids with bright futures, flunking college courses. Students might drink too much, hate college and want to quit, or perhaps have no discernible reason for poor grades. One with “no reason” to struggle academically has an appointment with me next week, a young man I have known for two years, and I can guess many of the details now. Let’s call him Evan.

Evan graduated from a prestigious private high school with honors. His SAT scores were through the roof. I saw him for anxiety during his junior and senior years of high school, anxiety brought on by girlfriends and adolescence in general, but he never had any trouble with academics. He was a brilliant student. Straight A’s in a college prep high school, honors and AP classes filled his schedule. Teachers loved him, assignments were turned in on time; he was a great candidate for a dazzling future first as a college student, then later as a professional. Evan and his parents were puzzled by my growing concerns his senior year—I was afraid he was unprepared for college. I raised the issue several times, and it fell on deaf ears. Academically, they knew he was ready. I was worried about his non-academic skills. Eventually his social anxiety subsided and they stopped coming. I didn’t hear from him or his parents until winter break three semesters into college. He was on academic suspension.

The family will come this week, and I will review my concerns raised two years ago. Sure, Evan was a good kid. He was intelligent and cooperative, but he had to be pushed, often pushed hard, to get things done. The first time I met his mother, she called herself a “Tiger-Mom,” apparently uncertain whether she thought it was a good or a bad thing to be. She said the family valued academics, college and post college education, achievement, and personal responsibility. Both parents were high achievers— ambitious perfectionists, both driven to achieve. These were all precisely the reasons for my concern. Kids from families like Evan’s don’t necessarily do well in college, at least not as often as folks believe they will.

Motivation and ambition are hard to instill or measure. They don’t seem to be inherited like eye and hair color. Drive comes from someplace else. Two ambitious parents probably expect to have ambitious kids, but often one or more children of go-getter parents will not be go-getter types. In fact, as a professional, I have come to expect one highly “laid-back” child to be the norm when both parents are ambitious and driven. I have often thought that Family Systems Theory might explain the rate of unmotivated kids from high achiever parents: maybe the family system already has enough ambition, so the child adopts a laid-back stance; the open space in the family system.

When I meet a teen with two driven parents, I look for the signs of this family dynamic. In Evan’s case, his “Tiger Mom’s” constant pushing was a big indicator that he might lack internal drive. Evan didn’t “push” himself. He was propelled by his mom. Also, Evan wasn’t excited about his life or his future. He didn’t get fired-up about anything. He obeyed his parents and tried to stay out of trouble, but when he got to college without his parents, then what would keep him going?

Most college student retention policies focus on academic skills and funding, but how many of the students simply lack the internal drive for college, like Evan? He had the academic skills and the finances for college, and he’s not making it. The social policy makers can’t help Evan, but I hope his parents can. I will advise them to stop steering and give over the reins to Evan. Let him work, ask him to pay rent, and try to leave him space to cultivate a spark of excitement about life. In essence, I will ask them to back off and make room for Evan’s ambition to grow.


Dr. Deuter is a psychiatrist who specializes in the care of emerging adults.

Posted on January 20, 2014 .